The stories read like dispatches from a nightmare, describing a reality that is almost too extreme to fathom: nearly 2 million people locked inside a land mass the size of Philadelphia, the borders carefully controlled, the movement of goods and humans severely restricted; as much as 72 percent of the population facing food insecurity and 41 percent struggling with unemployment; hospitals forced to rely on generators for life-saving equipment, while supplies of life-saving medicines dwindle to dangerous levels; and looming in the not-far-off distance, as water treatment and desalination plants stop working, the risk that drinking water will run out.
Such is the daily reality of life in the Gaza Strip, the narrow Mediterranean enclave that is home to nearly half of all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. It is a place where life has long been cruel, where refugees forced out of Israel during the Nakba and families who have lived in Gaza for generations have suffered under dire conditions for nearly 70 years. But in the last decade, it has become a site of stunning misery. Ten years ago this past June, Israel imposed a stringent land, sea, and air blockade on Gaza. With the ready help of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt, they have restricted most movement to and from the strip and pushed the tiny territory to the brink of collapse. Today some 80 percent of Gaza’s population relies on humanitarian aid to survive. Conditions have become so extreme that the United Nations has stated that by 2020 the Gaza Strip could become uninhabitable.
And now, Palestinians in Gaza face a new crisis. Just last month, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank decided to stop paying Israel for the electricity it supplies to the Gaza Strip. This prompted Israel to cease supply: Instead of enjoying as many as four to six hours of electricity per day, Palestinians in Gaza would have to get accustomed to only two to three. In late June, Egypt stepped in with a direct shipment of diesel to Gaza, briefly easing the crisis. But, as a heat wave sweeps Gaza, it is not clear how long the arrangement will continue. Human-rights organizations warned that further electricity reduction could cause a “total collapse.”
The only time I was able to enter Gaza was in the summer of 2015, a year after Israel’s last devastating military assault on the strip. Upon leaving the last station of the border crossing, manned by officials of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, scenes of destruction unfolded before my eyes. Apartment blocks that had formed the first line of defense against the Israeli army had essentially been gutted. On the drive south towards Gaza City, whole areas had been razed to the ground. Reconstruction had yet to commence—a result of Israel’s restrictions on the import of building material—so the collapsed buildings had been diligently swept into piles of rubble by the sides of the streets. People lived in the remnants of their homes or within the skeletons of teetering buildings, using colorful cloths where windows once stood.
The scars of war remained frozen in time, not allowed to heal. Yet against this backdrop of post-apocalyptic devastation, quotidian scenes of normalcy endured. I was in Gaza during the month of Ramadan. In the main urban centers in the strip, streets heaved with traffic, and university campuses bustled with students and faculty. During iftar meals, restaurants were packed. My hotel had a beautiful courtyard that looked out onto the Mediterranean where elite families came to break their fast and stay until the early hours of the morning. The piers jutting out of Gaza’s beaches into the sea were filled with teenagers strolling up and down the promenade, enjoying the views of Gaza’s skyline, barely lit and missing several high-rises that had been flattened by Israel.
These signs of life spoke more of resilience than prosperity—and even then, it was a fraught resilience. Parents told me of how their children wet their beds at night. They pointed to bags that had been packed and left by the side of the door, with all their valuables, in case they had to rush out. Remnants of the terror that had been endured—a terror during which 2,251 Palestinians were killed, among them 1,462 civilians and 551 children—intruded into most conversations. Little kids complained to me that they no longer enjoyed playing football at school, because their teams now included older kids from different grades. It took me a few minutes to understand that it was because tens of their schoolmates had vanished under Israel’s bombardment a year prior. Grades had to be merged together.
Mostly, people offered feelings of desperation and claustrophobia, of absolute incomprehension as to how the world still does not know of the misery in Gaza. Or worse, if the world knows, of why it has forgotten them.
In the face of so much misery, the larger context can quickly evaporate, the solutions reduced to emergency food and fuel shipments. Yet viewing Gaza solely as a heart-wrenching humanitarian catastrophe elides the fact that this reality has been carefully engineered. Indeed, three years after the blockade was imposed, it was revealed that the Israeli administration in charge of overseeing the siege considered using caloric measures to weigh how many truckloads of food should be allowed in. The goal was to regulate the import of food down to the exact number of calories needed to avoid starvation, no more.
Architects of this closure claim that they want such isolation to pressure Hamas into submission. The wrinkle in this formulation is that Hamas came to power through democratic elections in 2006 that were deemed fair and transparent by international observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter. Refusing to acknowledge Hamas’s election, however, the United States and Israel intervened and helped precipitate an internecine battle among Palestinian factions that resulted in the political and geographic separation of the Palestinian territories. While the PA consolidated its grip over the West Bank, Hamas settled into its role as a quasi-government within Gaza. With that division, the fragmentation of the Palestinian people under the weight of the Israeli occupation was all but complete.
Many Palestinians, in Gaza and elsewhere, deplore Hamas’s authoritarianism and ideology, from its Islamic social conservatism to its reliance on armed struggle as a mode of resistance. Many others have supported Hamas as an act of protest against Fatah, the PA’s ruling party, which is widely viewed as corrupt and oppressive and has been helmed for years by the monumentally unpopular Mahmoud Abbas. And still others actively support what they believe is Hamas’s right to use armed struggle to resist Israel’s unyielding choke hold on the Palestinian people.
The undeniable cruelty of the blockade is that it obliterates such nuance. The blockade is premised on the notion that the collective punishment of 2 million Palestinians is permissible, even justified, to reach the political goal, dictated by Israel, of subduing Hamas. Such thinking dehumanizes Palestinians in Gaza: It becomes an unfortunate reality that civilians are terrorized and killed in an effort to break Hamas. It also elides key shifts that have taken place within Hamas itself: Earlier this year, Hamas officially accepted the goal of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and has issued a political document that offers a starting point for engagement.
Instead of addressing the internationally sanctioned aspects of many of Hamas’s demands, and those of Palestinians writ large, including the right to Palestinian self-determination, Israel has chosen a military approach focused solely on Hamas’s pacification. Since 2007, Israeli security forces have killed more than 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza. Alongside the slow suffocation inherent in the act of closure, Israel has carried out three major military assaults (in 2014 as well as in 2008–09 and in 2012) against Gaza, and countless raids in between, unleashing the force of the region’s most powerful army—and sole nuclear power—on one of the most densely populated refugee areas in the world.
Israel has justified these attacks as self-defense against rockets lobbed by Hamas and other factions. However, the evidence shows that Israel has provoked many of these conflagrations. Waging disproportionate retaliation against these largely primitive rockets, Israel has dropped white phosphorous bombs on civilian areas; flattened whole tower blocks with the inhabitants still inside; attacked UN schools that had been turned into refugee shelters; targeted ambulances and hospitals; destroyed the only power generation company in the territory; and generally terrorized an entire population that it has been starving relentlessly for years.
And so, Gaza has been turned in the world’s imagination from a political problem that demands a settlement into a humanitarian disaster. Even the UN unwittingly condones Gaza’s closure when it defines a framework for reconstruction that operates within the limits of what is acceptable by Israel’s blockade. Within the consciousness of Israel’s public, Gaza’s humanity is rarely seen or acknowledged. Israel’s current minister of justice has referred to newborn children in Gaza as snakes that must be quashed.
Crucially, this dehumanization is not new—not a break with traditional policy so much as an amplification of it. Israel has long experimented with ways to control Palestinians in Gaza, a proud center of Palestinian nationalism and source of resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation. In the 1950s, decades before blockading Gaza because it was a “hostile entity” under Hamas, Israeli politicians talked of liquidating Gaza because it was a “fedayeen [guerilla fighter] nest” under the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that predated Hamas. When Israel “disengaged” from Gaza in 2005, the idea was less about liberation for the people of the strip than about crippling the possibility of a unified Palestinian state—or, as Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser said at the time, ensuring “there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Even this current blockade is itself an escalation of systematic “closures”—often lengthy periods during which Israel sealed the border with Gaza—that have been imposed on the strip in one way or the other since 1991, 15 years before Hamas’s election.
Viewed in its proper historical context, then, the blockade, the punishment of all of Gaza for Hamas, becomes a piece in a much larger puzzle, part of a long-standing effort to subdue Palestinians in Gaza and isolate them from the West Bank. This allows Israel to continue managing rather than resolving the conflict—to maintain control over the Palestinian territories without having to assume responsibility for 2 million additional Palestinians, something that would threaten its Jewish majority.
The most immediate crisis in Gaza was averted when Egypt stepped in with fuel shipments to avoid further electricity cuts. But this stop-gap measure is hardly a solution. As the blockade moves into its 11th year, it is more important than ever to remember that Gaza is not a humanitarian problem nor is it a separate complication to be “resolved.” Gaza and its inhabitants are part and parcel of the broader Palestinian quest for self-determination. It cannot be reduced to Hamas, and its inhabitants must not be used as political pawns. Only once their humanity is acknowledged and the international community pressures Israel to address the Palestinian quest for freedom, equality, and justice, will this ongoing suffering end.